Japanese fried chicken (karaage) w/ salmon caviar (ikura)
” Ikura’s intensity lies in its sticky and viscous brininess that liquifies and oozes around the tongue after each pops. When you think about it, a sauce, almost. “
We came home from a long weekend in Kyoto and, if I may, I want to talk about me and karaage for a bit.
For those who aren’t familiar, karaage, aka Japanese fried chicken, is and should be regarded as a league of its own, standing far apart from the classic American fried chickens or the recently popularized Korea-style fried chickens. It is none of those. Karaage is boneless, cut into medium to large-size chunks, without sauce, and almost always, as gods intended, uses dark meats only. Flavor-wise, due to its mildly sweetened brine, its juice runs almost nectar-like, secreting from its firm and bouncy muscles following the crunch of karaage’s trademark white-speckled crusts. Served simply with lemon wedges and Japanese-style mayonnaise called Kewpie — also a distinction from American/European mayonnaise but that’s another story — such formula has become an establishment in the Japanese diet, celebrated everywhere from restaurants, department stores, convenience stores and even train stations. Clearly as popular opinions suggest, there’s nothing wrong with it for sure.
I used to adore karaage. I still do, I guess, but in a different way now. Our relationship, which used to demand an intimate reunion whenever opportunity presents itself, had taken a shift since last weekend.
During this trip in Kyoto, strangely stalled in front of the frequent offerings of impeccably fried karaage behind spotless glass windows, I was feeling a general lagging enthusiasm which, unregrettingly, led to zero purchases. What’s wrong with me? I used to love karaage! I should want this stuff, right? I should not be able to get enough of it, no? It’s a great piece of fried chicken for god’s sake so how do I explain myself? I bit into an onigiri over-filled with mentaiko on my returning flight, aching over my betrayal.
I came home plunged into an intense couple-therapy session between me and karaage. We shut the door, we shouted, we whispered, we cried, we left nothing unsaid and nothing unfelt we even skyped Kewpie. After boxes of Kleenex tissues, we walked slowly out of the room, hand in hand, and are ready to make a public statement. It isn’t easy. Possibly appalling. But we’ve both decided that at this specific juncture, what is best for our relationship to move forward with is — a threesome.
Look, karaage, on its own, is good. But over time, I find karaage’s sweetness and garlicky undertone somewhat binding and tiresome. It needs a sharp piercing beyond the general zing of lemon or mustard. It needs a spanking. Somewhere between reasons and insanity and Momofuku, ikura comes to mind.
Ikura is Japanese cured salmon roe, much like Russian caviar, but seasoned with soy sauce, sweet rice wine and dashi. Its intensity lies in its sticky and viscous brininess that liquifies and oozes around the tongue after each jewel-like pops. When you think about it, a sauce, almost. If you think that the idea of pairing a vehemently briny fish eggs with fried chicken is strange, you’r not wrong, but in a way that feels very right, if that makes sense. The faintly fishy saltiness does not protrude and speaks over everyone else, as it only flows through the ambience like strings of vividly played jazz, infusing vitality into the conversation, especially with its edge smoothed around by the creaminess of Kewpie mayonnaise. It doesn’t change karaage. It just makes it fun.
Sometimes a relationship needs a third party.
- 2 lbs (900 grams) boneless skin-on chicken thighs
- 3/4 cup (180 grams) store-bought chicken broth
- 3 tbsp (45 grams) soy sauce
- 1 tbsp (15 gams) sake wine
- 2 1/2 tsp (13 grams) mirin/Japanese sweet wine
- 2 tsp (13 grams) fine sea salt
- 1 small clove of garlic, grated
- 1 tsp ground galangal powder, or 2 tsp grated ginger
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup potato starch or tapioca starch (but not cornstarch)(see note *)
- 1/2 tbsp cayenne powder
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- Canola oil for frying
- Ground white pepper to dust
- 2 tbsp Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise
- 1 tsp wasabi paste, plus more to adjust
- 1/4 cup Japanese cured salmon roe/Ikura (see note **)
- Lemon or lime wedges to serve
- MARINATE: Cut the boneless chicken thighs into 1 1/2" x 3~4" strips ( 4 x 8~10 cm). We want these pieces to be relatively large because we want the meat to remain juicy while giving the exterior enough time to brown. Transfer the strips into a large container, along with chicken broth, soy sauce, sake wine, mirin, fine sea salt, grated garlic, galangal powder (or grated ginger) and black pepper. Cover and leave in the fridge to marinate for at least 2 hours or up to 6 hours.
- BREADING: In a large bowl, whisk together potato starch, cayenne powder and ground black pepper. Do not drench the chicken directly inside the starch, because that will turn the entire bowl of starch crumbly and wet, making it difficult to adhere to the chicken and you will lose that white speckles in the final result.
- Instead, drain a piece of chicken from the marinate and hold it above another bowl with one hand. With the other hand, liberally drop the starch all over the chicken until it's thoroughly coated in every folds, nooks and crannies. Then place the breaded chicken on top of a cooling-rack as you work on the rest. If you run out of starch, simply just make more.
- FRYING: Add enough canola oil into a frying pot until it reaches 2" (5 cm) deep. Heat over medium-high heat until it reaches 350 F/175 C, or it bubbles up immediately around an inserted wooden chopstick. Give the chicken a second light drench in starch, then fry them without crowding the pot, until crispy and golden browned with pale speckles remaining on the surface, about 4~5 minutes. Drain well and immediately dust them with ground white pepper.
- TO SERVE: In a bowl, whisk together Kewpie mayonnaise and wasabi paste (adjust the amount to your liking), then gently fold in the salmon roe/ikura. Immediately serve it alongside the fried chickens with wedges of lemon or lime.
* Japanese fried chicken/karaage specifically uses potato starch as the breading which gives it a great crispiness and that signature white speckled exterior. Tapioca starch can also give you the same crispiness (even crispier in my opinion), but the white speckled-look will not be so pronounced. Cornstarch will underwhelm in both categories so don't use it.
** Ikura (Japanese cured salmon roe) can be found in most Japanese supermarkets in the fridge section alongside sashimi. It can be slightly pricey, but cheaper than European/Russian caviar. If you cannot find it, you can substitute with other types of caviar.